Amazon Prime Video’s Yearly Departed is a great concept for a show. Indeed, it’s so well executed that even when I wasn’t giving it points for substance, the show’s style scores were impeccable. Then, as the closing credits rolled and I learned the kind of technical contortions that had gone into making this show — this once-in-a-lifetime, physically distant comedy special of the COVID era — all I could say was bravo.
So that’s all good. Sadly, however, I have not come to praise Yearly Departed but to bury it. Like the year 2020 itself, this special starts out pretty great. Then it goes a little wobbly. And then it collapses and has to be rushed to the ER … only to find that the ER is full and there’s nothing that can be done to save the patient.
OK, that might be overstating things a bit. My harsh take on Yearly Departed is colored by my view, previously stated, that comedy and political commentary have been a toxic mix this year. Stephen Colbert is by far the most popular host working in late night, and he accomplishes this with (a) a cold open that is not funny, (b) a monologue that Rachel Maddow could have done, only hers would have been better. He has gone from a singular comedic talent to Jay Leno in five years. Trevor Noah is the last man standing at Comedy Central and I’m pretty sure it’s because a million Americans would rather get their news from him than David Muir.
Yearly Departed is set inside a funeral home, where a group of mourners — actually a group of well-known and not-so-well-known comedic ladies dressed to the nines in mourning wear — file in. (They’ve all been shot separately on green screens and seamlessly, amazingly, assembled into a room of socially distant mourners. It’s the most visually realistic team video chat ever.) Each one takes a turn at the lectern, delivering a scathing eulogy to something that we said good riddance to in 2020. The funeral home has the usual overabundance of carpeting and flowers, and the whole hour is scored to one of those funeral-home organs that kept the Wurlitzer company afloat during the 1970s. Points for style.
The show gets off to a fine start thanks to a pitch-perfect opener from the emcee, Phoebe Robinson. “Although so many were divided this year,” Robinson says, “we did have one common enemy — the iPhone weekly Screen Time notification. I don’t need to be dragged like that!” (Good luck to the former 2 Dope Queens cohost as she launches her Comedy Central interview show in the new year. I’m sure it will be funnier than Trevor Noah’s.)
She’s followed by Tiffany Haddish, who absolutely kills her monologue on the end of casual sex. “I just stopped watching TV because at this point, all shows turn me on — Planet Earth, Kingdom fo Plant 3-D. I love that British nature man’s voice!” Haddish throws off better lines than that, but this was the only one I could quote without a lot of th****ese things.
Next up is another rising talent, Natasha Rothwell (Insecure), who kicks it up yet another notch with a brilliant and long-overdue take on the death of the heroic TV cop. The policeman who could do no wrong was kept alive all these years by “the grace of executive producer Dick Wolf,” but Rothwell declares him well and truly dead, to be replaced by new shows about heroic postal workers. OK, maybe not, but we want to believe.
Where the show starts to wobble is when Rachel Brosnahan steps to the podium. Brosnahan is a producer on Yearly Departed and, as you may know, has brought Amazon much glory for her role on a show playing a standup comic. From what I can tell, she has never actually done standup comedy. And it shows. Her job here is to deliver a eulogy to pants. It’s a generic-label way of eulogizing Zoom, since video chats allowed office workers of both genders to shed their trousers. But Brosnahan’s delivery is poor, and the attempt to compensate with some physical comedy — she tears off her pants, echoing her Mrs. Maisel debut — is overdone.
At this point I should point out that most of Yearly Departed is not that true to its concept. The eulogists spend a lot of time saying goodbye to things that aren’t going anywhere, they’re just on ice for a few months. Ziwe Fumudoh (Desus & Mero, Baited) is right to dance on the graves of beige Band-Aids and other racially questionable consumer products and cultural icons, as one hopes that these indeed are gone for good. But casual sex and business attire aren’t dead, nor are “rich girl Instagram influencers,” the target of Patti Harrison’s eulogy. As for Natasha Leggero (Chelsea Lately), her pent-up rant against her three-year-old for holding her hostage throughout 2020 is not only off-brand — since most preschools ave already reopened — but a little off-putting too.
By the time Sarah Silverman steps up to confidently stomp on Donald Trump’s political grave — another case where you're left wondering where the actual jokes are — I was done with Yearly Departed. Not even the Very Special Musical Guest (whom I've been sworn by Amazon not to mention here) could bring it back from the dead. There are certain businesses that specialize in happy endings, and television is one of them. I did tune in thinking that maybe I could laugh 2020 out of the room and out of my life. But I couldn’t. To forget a year this sad may just require some time to heal. It certainly requires better material than this.
Yearly Departed is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.